Augustine and The Scandal of Embodied Humanity

augustineI’ve been pondering a couple conversations I had with neo-Reformed friends this past week about the incarnation that brought to mind numerous similar conversations I’ve had with others as well. Things typically go well concerning the humanity as well as the divinity of Jesus until at some point I say, “And Jesus not only came as a human in the past tense, Jesus is still an embodied human even now.”

A statement like this always seems to disturb quite a few folks. One of my friends this past week replied, “But Jesus was resurrected … he ascended … he was re-instated as the second person of the Trinity, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “Resurrected as the Human One, ascended as the Human One, and included in the eternal divine fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit … as the Human One. Is not the incarnation, and thus the humanity as well as divinity of Jesus; an ongoing, permanent reality? And necessary for historic orthodoxy no less?”

He only answered with a weak, “Well … I suppose it is.”

Now, let’s put the ‘re-instated as the second person of the Trinity’ comment aside (I’m not sure he realized just how problematic his statement here really was). And please keep in mind I’m not simply picking on my friend with this; but my grave concern here is something of a theological undercurrent I have seen from a great deal of conservative Evangelicals, neo-Reformed and otherwise.

That is – there is a (rather well documented) tendency to not only over-emphasize the divinity of Jesus in relation to his humanity but to actually wince when it comes his (continued and ongoing) humanity. The incarnation it seems to them is a scandal … a theological box to be checked off to fulfill all ‘righteousness’ so to speak … but in the end a scandal to be muted.

For those neo-Reformed, or others, who like to appeal to Augustine as their authority (or appeal to those who appeal to Augustine even though you’ve never really read Augustine yourself) consider these two quotes:

The first, on the incarnation…

God has “established and founded this faith, that man might find a way to man’s God through God made man. For this is ‘the Mediator between God and man: the man Christ Jesus’. For it is as man that He is the Mediator and the Way. If there is a way between one who strives and that towards which he strives, there is hope of his reaching his goal; but if there is no way, or if he is ignorant of it, how does it help him to know what the goal is? The only way that is wholly defended against all error is when one and the same person is at once God and man: God our goal, man our way.” (City of God, 11.2)

And the second, where we see that Augustine is not against the flesh…

The incarnation “showed that it is sin which is evil, and not the substance or nature of flesh … He showed also that death itself, though it is the penalty of sin – a penalty which He paid for us without sin – is not something that we are to avoid by sinful means. Rather, if need be, we should suffer death in the name of righteousness. For He was able to redeem us from sin by His own death, because He died, but He died for no sin of His own.” (City of God 10.24)

There is no muting of the incarnated and embodied humanity of Jesus or humanity in general for Augustine here. Let us then not mute the implications of the incarnation and humanity of Jesus, our liberating King. Our faith is unintelligible apart from incarnation (and Trinity).

Tell me: Why do so many run from embodied humanity – Jesus’ or ours?

May This Be Our Prayer

Bapto-catholic…that was what the Catholic trauma chaplain at the hospital where I did my residency in Clinical Pastoral Education called me. He was intrigued that I made use of the lectionary, had an interest in and used liturgy, and made use of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. He told me I wasn’t like other Baptists he had ever met. I think his description of me is accurate and I think I was probably set up for it. Though I grew up in Baptist churches my whole life, until I went out to west Texas for college (at a Baptist university) I lived in a small Catholic community known as Lindsay. Lindsay was down the road from the slightly larger Catholic community known as Muenster (yes, these were German Catholics).

The result of this was that I grew up around Catholics my whole life, but at church I often heard about how Catholics weren’t really Christians. They were just caught up in religiosity in which they were trying to earn their way to heaven. There was no way that their faith was genuine. This may sound harsh (and it was) but this was the sort of thing that I heard from Baptist pastors, deacons, and church members alike. One deacon used to tell me that the phrase ‘vain repetitions’ was invented just for Catholics.

I am thankful for the few (like my mentor Donnie York) that did tell me that many Catholics actually were capable of genuine faith and it was probably about same percentage as Baptists – maybe a little more! As a chaplain/CPE resident I had ample opportunity to speak with Catholics as they faced traumas and many times death. I am grateful to these Christian brothers and sisters for teaching me about their deep faith in Christ during these times of deep grief and lament. Yes, we have theological differences, but this does/did not cancel out the depth of their faith in Jesus. I cringe whenever I hear fellow Baptists or other rather ‘conservative’ evangelicals say that Catholics can’t possibly be Christians.

In the sermon yesterday morning the pastor told a story about when Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto became Pope Pious X in 1903. Sarto apparently did not want to accept the position of pope initially but was encouraged to do so by his friend, Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val y de Zulueta (that’s quite the name!), who would become Pious X’s Secretary of State. Merry del Val gifted the new Pope with a prayer that would become known as the Litany of Humility, and one which del Val was said to have prayed every day after the Mass. The full text is below. Read it slowly and meditate on it.

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, O Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, O Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I go unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Can I just say that I think that Baptist deacon was wrong? There is nothing ‘vain’ about this prayer. If you can pray this prayer and it falls under the category of ‘vain repetition’ … well, my friend, don’t blame the prayer because that’s not where the problem resides. Church father John Chrysostom said that the lack of humility and the search for ‘popular praise’ was (in a reference to the ancient Hydra slain by Hercules) an ‘invisible and savage monster’ that needed its many heads cut off, or better yet, to have prevented them from growing altogether. Those that are able to slay this monster of popular praise and esteem and the lack of humility will enjoy the ‘quiet heaven of rest’ while those that don’t will suffer ‘manifold struggles, personal confusion, deep dejection, and a host of other passions.’

We Protestants (of all flavors) can learn much from our Eastern Orthodox (represented here by the ancient wisdom of Chrysostom) and Catholic brethren. May we take Chrysostom’s advice and slay the monster of pride and the lack of humility. Oh that the Litany of Humility were prayed more often in ALL expressions of the ekklesia!

May it gradually shape and form us into the humble image of our Liberating King.

‘Deliver us, O Jesus’ … ‘Jesus, grant us the grace’ …  may this be our prayer!

The First Christmas Sermon Ever Preached

Over at Tony Jone’s blog he has posted excerpts of what is thought to be the very first Christmas sermon ever preached. I like this sermon so much I decided I would steal his idea and post the excerpts myself here on my own blog. This sermon was preached by John ‘Golden Mouth’ Chrysostom (who got his nickname due to his oratory skill) in 386 AD. I first came upon Chrysostom’s sermon when I was an undergrad doing some research for a historical theology course I was taking. I then forgot about it for a number of years until I rediscovered it as a graduate MDiv student at Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, TX while doing research on the Trinitarian theology of the church fathers.

You will find the excerpts below and can read the whole thing for yourself in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers. The full text is available on Google Books as well. Happy reading and Merry Christmas!

I behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.  The Angels sing.  The Archangels blend their voice in harmony.  The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise.  The Seraphim exalt His glory.  All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven.  He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice.  And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields.  For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God.  This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not.  For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His.  Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny.  Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech.  For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth.  The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace!  The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption.  For what reason?  That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see.  For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature’.  For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made.  Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator.  For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say!  And how shall I describe this Birth to you?  For this wonder fills me with astonishment.  The Ancient of days has become an infant.  He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger.  And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men.  He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands.  But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life.  He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity.  For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this?  Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh.  He did not become God.  He was God.  Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother.  So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him.  Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever.  Amen.